National guard indy car revs up for racing

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The new 230-mph, No. 4 National Guard IndyCar was unveiled at the Army National Guard Readiness Center at Arlington Hall in Arlington Virginia.

“We’ve been involved with NASCAR for a number of years,” said Maj. Gen. Ray Carpenter, special assistant to the director of the Army National Guard. “This is the next step in racing for us. It’s a great, great opportunity for us to showcase our National Guard capability in a different forum. It’s a great, great step forward.

“The benefit for us is that it provides another venue for us to tell the National Guard story and reach out to a target population.”

Driven by Vitor Meira for Panther Racing team owner John Barnes, the Dallara IR car has a 3.5-liter Honda Indy V-8 engine and runs on ethanol.

Meira said a visit to wounded Guard members at Brooke Army Medical Center, in San Antonio, was the moment he truly understood what the National Guard stands for.

“I’m gaining so much from every soldier I meet,” he said. “It’s something very different than other sponsors. We pass the message on — a message of honor, a message to be proud and stand for the great things this country stands for. I’m really honored to drive the National Guard car. The soldiers influence me. If I drove as good as they perform their duty every day, I would be in the winner’s circle every time.”

Meira sees common ground between the training he must do and the training soldiers do. “Training is everything in life,” he said. “Soldiers and the Guard are a statement of that. The amount that they train and how well they perform their duty is a statement that training is everything.”

Adrenaline and the spirit of competition are among Meira’s driving forces. “It’s my way of life,” he said. “It’s not work. It’s something I was doing as a kid - something I would pay to do and now get paid to do.”

Panther Racing hosts up to 200 Guard members at each race. Owner John Barnes is in his 42nd year of racing, and he said he’s come full circle: The racing driver who was his father’s best friend and best man and who inspired Barnes to enter the world of the track himself was a National Guardsman.

“Now to have the National Guard support my team is unbelievab­le,” he said, “something I never dreamed of.”

Sometimes race car drivers are called heroes, Barnes said.

“The true heroes work in this building, and they work at the Guard units across the country, whether it’s taking care of floods or tornadoes or whatever,” Barnes said. “Every day, 17 governors call the Guard to activate them for something or other, and to know that we have that support as American citizens is just incredible. It’s the framework of our country, and it’s an honor to be a part of that.”

Barnes’s car has 18 races scheduled in the 2008 IndyCar series, including appearances in Australia, Canada and Japan.

“Initiatives like this have contributed to the Army National Guard going from 330,000 end strength in June of 2005 to 358,000-plus today,” Carpenter said. “There’s not been any single silver bullet here. It’s taken a collection of NASCAR racing, of what we’re doing here with Indy racing and all of the rest of the things we’ve got out there — the Guard Recruiting Assistance Program [and] Active First — have all come together and made this happen.”

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